by Jason Boulay
Crisp November air descends upon the sleepy valley in northeastern Afghanistan. Enormous snowcapped mountains frame the unforgiving landscape.
“Sgt. Foley, wake up,” I mutter, aching with exhaustion.
The author with a group of Afghani children/photo by jason Boulay
After another sleepless day of running offensive raids on Taliban strongholds south of Kabul, our three-man military police team is, once again, working the midnight shift. Tonight we are securing checkpoint 1-Alpha, the first line of defense for the United States airfield located adjacent to the small Afghan village.
The tall plywood watchtower does little to protect us from the biting conditions outside. Small openings at both ends of the oblong room provide some visibility, but also allow piercing winds to pass through unobstructed. The tower overlooks the dangerously straight dirt road leading onto the base, dangerous because the absence of bends means that a car rigged with explosives could speed toward base.
My knees crack. I stand up from my failed attempt to wake the team leader. I scan the harsh and barren terrain. An unsettling stillness rises from the wasteland of brittle, sun-hardened clay. Countless white rocks, arranged in small stacks, decorate the landscape, each rock placed with cautious respect by villagers to mark the locations of active landmines. I pan left, across the vacant road, and towards the earthen ruins that were once an adobe home, a quiet reminder of the Soviet aggression experienced by the Afghan people the last time a foreign nation entered their land two decades ago.
My watch reads 2 a.m., only four hours into our tedious twelve-hour shift. It’s my turn to sleep. After working all day and through the night, I am aggravated and exhausted.
I kick Foley’s rack. “Paul, get the fuck up!”
Behind me, the rickety door slams shut with a loud clatter, causing me to jump. It’s our gunner, Specialist Barrett, returning from the latrine. He is a twenty-three year old, second-generation Irish Protestant from South Boston. Barrett stands 5’ 6’’, with a barrel-chest and stocky frame.
He lets out a guttural laugh, “Scared yah, Boulay?”
Although it’s dark, I can see the reddish hue of his neatly cropped hair as he removes his helmet.
Foley stands up and stretches.
“Whose turn to sleep?” he asks, barely managing to get the words out in-between yawns.
“Me,” I reply, irritated.
Barrett positions himself behind the machine gun; its matte black barrel extends out from the tower window, trained on the blackness that consumes the long desolate road. I look toward Foley; his thin, angular frame is reduced to a mere silhouette in the strategically dark tower. The 25-year-old sergeant proudly hails from a lineage of Irish Catholics who fled Ireland to escape discrimination in the mid-nineteenth century. Back in civilian life, Foley is a police officer in Quincy, Massachusetts, as was his father before him. Foley’s subdued nature often acts as a counterweight to Barrett’s boisterous manner.
Foley asks for a briefing on the past hour. Just as I start to speak, Barrett interrupts.
“We’ve got something out heah, guys,” the sound of alarm detectable through his thick Boston accent.
“What is it, Barrett?” Foley asks.
Barrett pivots his machine gun to the right, pointing the barrel diagonally across the road, “Right theah, ya see it?”
In the outermost limits of the darkness, a pale, flickering light sways and dips, appearing to dance impulsively in the cold Afghan night. Foley radios headquarters to see if we have any patrols in that area.
A response comes back quickly, “Negative, not tonight, over.”
Foley and I quickly inspect our assault rifles and 9mm handguns. Barrett drags two metal cases of extra machine-gun ammo across the splintered floor to his sandbag fortified position. We’re prepared for a firefight. All too often, the enemy creates a diversion to direct our attention away from the primary threat. Just last night we exchanged gunfire with Taliban fighters who started a brush fire in an attempt to lure us out of the tower and into the kill-zone. Dozens of bullet holes scar the pitted walls. Each one stands as a fresh reminder of our vulnerability and the enemy’s resolve.
Foley levels his M-16 Rifle out of the opening on the western side of the wooden structure. I cover the east. Barrett continues to keep our most powerful weapon trained on the unknown source of our concern. And we wait.
Minutes pass, disguised as hours. Tick! Tick! Tick! Last night’s ambush plays on continuous loop in my mind; the sudden rush of nearly paralyzing adrenalin, the loud rhythmic cracks of automatic gunfire, the sound of incoming bullets piercing the thin walls, and the all too familiar feeling of hot brass shell-casings bouncing off my wind-chapped skin. As I bow my head to pray, the sulfuric stench of gunpowder in the fibers of my uniform causes my eyes to water. My heart races, sweat builds up under my collar, and an uncontrollable anxiety flushes through my system.
The dim light slowly gets brighter. The night air is eerily silent. The sound of our rapid breathing only adds to the mounting tension.
“The light looks like it’s standing still,” Barrett informs us.
“That means it’s either moving away from our position, or heading straight for us,” Foley replies.
Slowly, out of the night, the vague outlines of people emerge, the flame of a kerosene lantern shimmering upon them.
I finally break the uncomfortable silence.
“That has to be more than twenty hoodgies.”
“Yup!” responds Barrett.
Foley pulls his weapon out of position, turns, and, breaking from his usually calm manner, barks out, “Barrett, keep it locked on them, and if anything seems off, light ’em up! Boulay, you’re with me!”
Foley and I quietly slip through the door at the back of the tower. As we near the bottom of the staircase, I nudge the sleeping Afghan interpreter. Startled, he opens his eyes and gasps, before jumping to his feet. I press a single gloved finger against my lips, telling him to keep quiet. Foley goes around the east side of the tower. I take the interpreter around the west.
As we round the tower, my anxiety mixes with adrenaline. Getting control over the lethal mixture that is pumping through my veins can be the difference between life and death for everyone involved. I take a deep breath and try to force myself to relax. Carrying anxiety into an already volatile situation makes it impossible to focus. Moments like this demand absolute concentration.
Briefly gazing up at the front of the tower, I see the distinct outline of the machine gun’s black metal barrel, standing in stark contrast against the pale yellow glow of the crescent moon. As Foley and I walk away from the giant structure, I feel Barrett watching over us, machine gun ready. My anxiety and fear subside. I can’t help but take comfort in the gun’s ominous presence.
My finger resting softly upon the trigger, I raise my rifle toward the potential target, flipping from safety to fire. With the push of a button, Foley activates the giant floodlights. A brilliant blast of radiant light illuminates the street. Tiny translucent scorpions and large black camel spiders scurry off the road. The hoodgies extend their hands in an attempt to block the intrusive light from assaulting their eyes. The sound of shuffling feet stops.
Foley instructs the group of villagers to send two people forward as representatives. From amidst the group, a man and woman emerge. The man has a long, thick, coal black beard with argent streaks irregularly spaced throughout. He is wearing the traditional daily Afghan garb, a loosely fitting perahan tunban. The woman, standing a half step behind him, is shrouded in a dark blue burka decorated with elaborate shell stitching. A thick-screened area conceals her eyes. She clings to an object covered by a dingy pink blanket. My finger tightens on the trigger.
Through the interpreter, the man speaks.
“Our baby is dying! Please help us.”
Without speaking a word, Foley takes five steps toward them—reaching out, he pulls the corner of the blanket back. A tiny gray arm falls lifelessly to the side. I lower my rifle.
A baby girl, only a few months old, clings to life. Her grayish blue skin appears shrink-wrapped to her skeletal frame. Each shallow, labored breath a struggle against the gurgling and crackling in her lungs. We motion for the man and woman to follow us into the tower.
Once inside, Foley calls for help over the radio. I take the baby from her mother’s arms and place her on the foldout cot. Pulling the fleece blanket back, I recognize faded images of Minnie Mouse on the inside. My niece had the same blanket when she was little. I begin CPR. Cupping my hands over the baby’s tiny nose, I begin breathing for the child, trying to keep her alive long enough for the medics to arrive. The heartbreaking sound of her mother crying hysterically adds urgency and purpose to every movement.
The sound of a Humvee becomes audible, followed by slamming doors and boots ascending the wooden staircase. Platoon Sgt. Bowe and Lt. Young enter the small tower.
“What’s the status?” Bowe asks.
I slowly back away from the child, “I think–” I take a deep breath, then continue, “–I think she’s gone.” The child’s previously shallow breathing has completely stopped without my assistance.
“We need to bring her to the hospital. We need to at least try!” demands Foley.
Lt. Young replies, “We do not have the clearance to bring unauthorized locals on base at this time.”
The interpreter speaks to the parents. Without protest, the father reaches down and in one seamless motion wraps the cold, limp, body of his daughter in the blanket, lifting her off the cot. With the lifeless body in their arms, they quietly leave, continuing on to their waiting tribe.
Just as the group had come, they leave, but now without the hope that the Americans can help. The six of us silently stand and watch them walk out of the glow of the floodlights. Bowe and Young leave. The interpreter goes down the stairs and back to sleep.
Foley breaks the silence “I’ll write the report in the morning. Boulay, you can lay down for a bit.”
I silently lie down on the cot, my head now resting where an innocent life ended only moments earlier. I close my eyes. This place is Hell on Earth! How much worse can it get, I think to myself, having no idea I would soon have an answer to that very question. I slowly fall asleep to the unnerving silence of the Afghan night and the occasional yawn of a teammate standing guard.
Jason Boulay is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan from 2002-2003 as a military police officer, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. He is a senior at Bryant University, in Smithfield, Rhode Island, RI, double majoring in political science and communication, and minoring in management.